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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Today: Netanyahu Confidant Meeting With Senior U.S. Officials; U.S. Strikes Iranian Groups In Iraq After U.S. Troops Attacked; IDF Continues Intense Fighting In Gaza As Humanitarian Crisis Worsens; Donald Trump's Christmas Message To Foes: "Rot In Hell"; Caravan With Thousands Of Migrants Heads To U.S. Border; Opposition Leader Navalny Moved Thousands Of Miles To Arctic Prison; Navigating College Applications Post-Affirmative Action Ruling. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired December 26, 2023 - 16:00   ET



BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: A top Israeli officials meeting with the White House over Israel's war against Hamas.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Meetings are underway between a close confidant to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and senior White House officials. As the administration asks Israel to scale back its war strategy, while the prime minister says he's not backing down.

And a new caravan of thousands of migrants is headed to the U.S. border from southern Mexico. Just one day before Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Mexico City, in an effort to deal with the crisis.

Plus, if you are planning to return an unwanted holiday gift, it may cost you. We'll tell you why.


GOLODRYGA: Hello, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Bianca Golodryga, in for Jake Tapper. Right now, top Biden administration officials are set to meet with Ron Dermer in Washington, D.C.

A close confidant of Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are expected to press Dermer on moving Israel to a more targeted phase of the war, that would mean less civilian casualties. This, as Netanyahu vows a long fight in Gaza. Israel Defense Forces are using its ground, air, and naval troops to strike what they say are terror targets in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas-controlled Palestinian ministry of health says at least 20,000 civilians have been killed since Hamas first attacked Israel on October 7th.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez at the White House for us.

Priscilla, these meetings could be underway at any moment. What are we expecting out of them?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, this comes, of course, at a critical time, as the U.S. looks for Israel to move away from its high intensity war, as the death toll grows in Gaza. This, of course, being a significant -- with a close confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a member of the war cabinet, and also previously served as Israel's ambassador to the United States.

Now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are participating in these meetings, as they seek answers on what the next phase of this Israel-Hamas conflict looks like.

Now, Israel has already assured the U.S. that it plans to move toward a lower intensity war, a more precise targeting of Hamas leadership. But it's unclear what the timeline looks like. Previously, U.S. officials believe that that localized operation would take place by January. But it's still unclear if that is happening, and if the next phase of this war has kicked into gear.

Now, senior Israeli officials throughout the course of the day today have maintained that there's no daylight between the U.S. and Israel, and that they both are on the same side.


TAL HEINRICH, SPOKESWOMAN FOR ISRAELI PM NETANYAHU: Well, we take advice from friends, we consult with friends, we don't have to agree on every small detail with friends. But in the bigger picture, we all share the same goals.


ALVAREZ: Now, behind the scenes, we know there have been tough conversations with U.S. officials and their counterparts in Israel. President Biden, under increasing pressure domestically, and on the global stage, as that death toll continues to grow in Gaza, and the president going so far earlier this month to warn Israel that if it doesn't contain these casualties, it risks losing support internationally. So all of this, converging these meetings today, as these officials discuss the next phases of the war, and also, of course, the release of additional hostages -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: All right. Priscilla Alvarez reporting from Washington, thank you.

Well, today, a new drone strike targeted Israel, and a missile hit a commercial ship in the Red Sea. Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for both, saying they are launching these strikes in solidarity with Gaza.

For more on this, let's go to CNN's Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon.

Oren, what do we know about these strikes? And how they fit into the larger picture of this conflict? OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Bianna, we just got a

statement short time ago from U.S. Central Command that says they intercepted and shot down quite a large barrage coming from the Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. In fact, according to Central Command, they intercepted 12 one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles, and two land attack cruise missiles over the course of ten hours on Tuesday.


Those launches began at 6:30 in the morning, and continued until early in the afternoon, Central Command says there were no reports of injuries that they received, and there was no damage to any shipping. But, this is part of what the U.S. has seen over the course of the past several weeks, if not months. Attacks against commercial shipping vessels and maritime vessels, operating in the Red Sea originating from Houthi controlled areas of Yemen, as the Houthis claim that their attacks and their actions, are in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

In fact, the Houthis put out a statement earlier today, saying they attacked the commercial vessel that wasn't responding to Houthi naval forces that try to reach out multiple times, saying their actions would continue, and would continue in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Now it's worth noting, that these intersections and the shoot downs were done by the USS Laboon, a destroyer operating in the Red Sea, as well as F-18 fighter jets as part of the Eisenhower carrier strike group that's been operating the region.

And recently, as the U.S. has launched a multinational force to respond to these Houthi attacks, that's what these U.S. naval forces have been doing there, trying to make sure that shipping in the Red Sea, one of the most critical waterways in the world, remains safe, as they have continued to intercept these drones, and these missiles.

According to the U.S., there have been about 100 launches from the Houthis targeting more than a dozen maritime and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Still, despite this massive effort from the U.S. and from other countries to try to safeguard shipping at such a critical waterway, many international shipping companies have chosen, at least for now, to avoid the Red Sea, another goes a long way around Africa, or tried to find some other way to ensure the safety of their own shipping.

Bianna, this is clearly a major concern, especially with a barrage the likes of which we saw take place, according to the U.S. today.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, and at the center of this is Iran, which U.S. intelligence believed supplied these missiles, and intelligence. And the U.S. just carried out air strikes on facilities used by Iranian- backed militants in Iraq. What more are we learning about the U.S. concern that these proxies are only escalating their attacks against U.S. interests?

LIEBERMANN: The common factor, you're absolutely right to point this out, is Iran. The Houthis are an Iran-backed group, an Iranian proxy operating in Yemen. And Kataib Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy operating in Iraq. The U.S. carried the number of airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah after that militant group, labeled as a terrorist organization by the U.S., carried out a one-way attack strike on U.S. forces operating in Irbil, Iraq, injuring three U.S. servicemembers, including one critically.

The U.S. has tried to send a message to Iran, with the forces it has in the region, in the attacks it's carried out against Iranian proxies in the region. But it's tried to calibrate that response, sending a message, without sparking a wider conflict in the region. The U.S. has tried to separate the Gaza war from the rest of the Middle East. But, Bianna, with everything we're seeing here, the U.S. has been unsuccessful in doing so.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, things appear to be only escalating. Oren Liebermann, thank you.

Let's go now to CNN's Will Ripley in Tel Aviv.

Will, Israel is carrying out ground, air, and naval strikes in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas-controlled health minister today said 241 civilians have been killed just last 24 hours. Tell us more about the situation on the ground there.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly is escalating, with 250 civilians killed just after Christmas eve, the period around Christmas. And now, just slightly less deadly 241. So the number of civilian deaths has really indicative of the fact that while Israel is now moving its military actions after securing much of the north and the central and the south, the central part of Gaza is full of civilians. And Hamas is embedding itself with these civilians.

Israel is basing all of these attacks, they, say on specific intelligence, often from captured Hamas militants, tell them exactly where to go, where Hamas is positioning itself, where they are moving their headquarters, as each tunnel complex is destroyed, each time they have to move to a different location. And now, they are essentially right embedded in between all of these people. And as a result, they have a high death count.

Now it's unclear how many are civilians versus how many are Hamas militants, but Israel says their objective is always to go after Hamas, but sometimes these civilian casualties are tragically unavoidable, because of the fact that they are just so closely packed together, in the regular population, and deliberately so, Israel says.

GOLODRYGA: All right. Will Ripley, thank you so much.

Let's discuss more with Beth Sanner. She's a former deputy director of national intelligence.

Beth, it is good to see you.

So as we've been reporting, Israel's events offensive against Hamas shows no signs of letting up. In fact, if anything, it's intensifying. In an op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal", Benjamin Netanyahu outlined three conditions that he says are necessary before there can be any peace between Israel and Gaza. And here's what he said. Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarized, and Palestinian society must be de-radicalized.


These are quite ambitious goals here, can they realistically be achieved? And if so, won't they need a longer timetable?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Absolutely. They will take a very long time. And I think some of, these particularly this idea of de-radicalizing the Palestinian society. I mean, it's a line that sounds good, but what is it actually really mean? How would you measure, how would you define it? In fact, on Israeli actions today actually radicalizing Palestinian society?

I think the answer there is, yes. You know, this isn't intentional, of course, but it is a logical byproduct of the devastation that we are seeing in Gaza.

So, you know, this editorial, Bianna, I think was really written for the Washington audience, just like Ron Dermer's trip here. And it's not really designed to put a timeline in. It's really designed to buy time.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, and it seems like some of these objectives, if they are fulfilled, may take a generation or two. I mean, he's talking about re-educating children at schools.

You mentioned Ron Dermer, he's one of Netanyahu's closest allies, well-known in Washington, as the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. He is meeting with U.S. officials today, and the U.S. is expected to continue to pressure Israel into entering more of that targeted phase of the war.

I'm just curious, Beth. Given that President Biden just spoke at length with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the weekend, what do you think the purpose of this in-person meeting is?

SANNER: Well, Ron Dermer speaks Washington. You know, he was ambassador here for many years, he knows all of the players, intimately. He is going to be going up to the hill, as well as meeting with the officials into the administration.

And I think, as I said before, it's really about buying time, about explaining what's going on, rather than, you know, coming to anything definitive. This is about managing the partnership, and I clip you played earlier, I think also about, you know, differences between our allies here can be managed, and, you know, all of those things.

This is a lot about the public perception of managing this relationship, and making sure that there is not too much publicly, publicly not too much daily between Israel and the United States. But in fact, they are going to keep fighting. GOLODRYGA: Yeah, and it's worth noting that that supplemental that

President Biden has been pushing for, which includes billions of dollars of aid to Israel, has not been passed yet. So, maybe that something Ron Dermer will be focusing on as well.

Going back to what else we've been reporting, the U.S. has been hoping that this won't escalate into a wider regional conflict. But, there was reporting this weekend that President Biden convinced Netanyahu not to launch an attack against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, just days after the October 7th Hamas attack.

But, you know, even today, we are continuing to see escalation in the Red Sea. A top IRGC leader was just assassinated. And, the U.S. launched an airstrike in Iraq overnight.

How concerned are you that this could be leading to a wider conflict, something that the U.S. obviously wants to avoid?

SANNER: I do think, you know, we are definitely still on the range of possibilities here of escalating of any one of these theaters, and they are all connected, right? And so, you know, we've got the Red Sea. We've also had an attack that the U.S. blames on Iran, of a commercial ship right off of the Indian coast, in the Indian Ocean.

So, we have so many of these things going on, and while I think both Iran and the U.S. absolutely do not want this to escalate, as Oren was explaining, they just want to keep the water kind of boiling, but not -- not boiling over.

But these kinds of things, you know, a lot can depend on what happens. The strike against the U.S. base in Irbil, one service member was critically wounded. If someone dies, that is what actually led us to killing Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander in January of 2020. So these things can escalate, we're not out of danger.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah. There's also a concern about a miscalculation, as well, that could escalate things. Beth Sanner, thank you as always. Appreciate it.

SANNER: Thanks, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Coming up, thousands of people have joined a migrant caravan headed to the U.S.-Mexico border. What the administration is doing to control the surge.

And as candidates gear up for the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump is on the offense in federal court. Why he says an appeals court should tossed out his election subversion case.



GOLODRYGA: In our politics lead, it's beginning to look a whole lot like 2016, as former President Trump used the Christmas holiday to -- what else -- air his grievances, attack his political opponents and spread false or misleading claims in a flurry of posts on Truth Social.

Including this: Merry Christmas to all, including crooked Joe Biden, deranged Jack Smith, world leaders, both good and bad. But none of which are as evil and sick as the thugs we have inside our country. May they rot in hell. Again, merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas indeed. Don't know what else to say, but let's bring in CNN's Kristen Holmes.

Kristen, it appears he had a lot to get off his chest over the holiday weekend.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, Bianna. I think that, again, merry Christmas really solidifies that it was such a Christmas-y post out there.

But this is really an indicator of what we are going to see over the next year, particularly if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, which polls indicate that he is likely to do. He -- we are in a very politically polarizing time, and Donald Trump is going to make this a deeply personal election, with personal attacks. He did it back in 2016, he did it throughout his presidency, and he's going to continue to do that now.

What you're seeing here is him attacking Joe Biden, attacking Jack Smith, calling these legal cases election interference.


And this has really been the messaging that he is selling to his supporters. As we heard him say just a month ago when he was in Iowa, Joe Biden, this is, again, Donald Trump, is the real threat to democracy because he is taking me on, his political opponent. That's why I'm dealing with all of these legal problems. That's going to be the message as we head into another presidential election.

Now, the other thing to point out here, is that as Donald Trump ramps up his rhetoric, we're not just hearing him talk about these legal cases. He's also really hitting that anti-immigration aggressive rhetoric, and talking to his senior advisers, talking to the former president himself, there is no indication that he is going to tone it down at all. That is because, in this primary ahead of these primaries caucuses, he's not getting any political pressure.

In fact, it's the opposite. The more amped up he has been, the higher he has seen his poll numbers go, particularly if you look at those Iowa poll numbers.

So, perhaps this will change if he does become the nominee. And he is in a general election. But right now, there is no reason to change what he is doing, or how he's speaking, because it's working for him with the Republican Party.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, it does appear to be working. And late Saturday night, Trump's legal team asked a federal appeals court to toss the election subversion case, claiming presidential immunity. And then Trump continued to make an argument on Truth Social posting

this: I am entitled to immunity. Additionally, I did nothing wrong. Stop the witch hunt now.

Trump repeatedly referred to the legal cloud that is hanging over him. Is this just another way to continue to rile up his base?

HOLMES: Yeah, there are multiple things going on here. Yes, this is politically productive for him. It would not seem to be so. His base does get riled up. They do believe that this is some sort of political persecution. And that Joe Biden is going after Donald Trump.

And as we have seen, time and time again, when he has been indicted or brought to court, or participated in one of these trials. His poll numbers to go, so does his fundraising. So, this does work for him.

But the other part of this is that it is hanging over him. Look at that case in Colorado for example. He went on multiple rants attacking the Supreme Court justices in Colorado, who overturned the case, ruling against him taking him off the ballot in that state. While his team does believe that that is going to overturn, eventually, they also now know that he has been essentially called formally an insurrectionist in a legal sense.

So, what does that mean long term for him, both legally and politically? They don't know. So, that is something that is very much weighing over them.

That case in New York, also weighing over Donald Trump. It has wrapped up, we are still waiting for a ruling in that, but something he cares about very much. So, yes, it is political fodder for him, but it's also something that he himself is hyper-fixated on.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, he has been.

Kristen Holmes, stay with us.

Let's bring in another question, Kristen Soltis Anderson, to discuss all of this with us.

So, Kristen Soltis Anderson, you have a piece out today in "The New York Times". And you write about how Trump is running his 2024 campaign differently from 2020, and 2016.

Here's what you say: If Mr. Trump ran before as the disruptor, don't count on him doing so at third time in 2024. Voters don't want chaos anymore. What I see and here is an electorate that seems to be craving stability.

And you don't think that's necessarily a good thing, not for former President Trump, but for President Biden. How so?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right now, Donald Trump is somebody who's run for president twice as a wrecking ball, a bull in a China shop, and he's tried to sell that to voters as a positive thing. It worked in 2016. It didn't in 2020. Thus far, in the lead up to

2024, if you look at things like his ads that he's put out, the number of them have tried to sound a note that is said, if I was president, we wouldn't be at war. If I was president, we wouldn't have this economic chaos, chaos at the border, et cetera.

It's as if he's trying it least his formal messaging, to pivot toward I'm going to be less chaotic than Joe Biden. Of course, what you just talked about, his Christmas evening message, really runs counter to that. It's kind of the id and ego if you will. The two faces of Donald Trump.

He wants to, I believe, in 2024 make the case that Joe Biden is more chaotic. But his own nature, to just tweet random things that are offensive or crazy, at any given time, really are going to make it hard for his team to execute on that kind of strategy.

GOLODRYGA: Sometimes you just can't break old habits. But you're right, he does like to say from time to time, I know ex-world leader. I know this world leader. And thus, I can handle this better than my opponent can.

Kristen Soltis Anderson, sticking with you. You also say voters want change. President Biden has been in office now for three years.

Do you think he can convince those voters who want change that he's the right candidate?

ANDERSON: I think it's going to be challenging for him. That's why I really think this election is going to wind up being a bit of a race to the bottom. It'll be less about, hey, you should like me.


I've done wonderful things. Give me four more years. Instead, it will be a lot about, here's why I think the other guy is worse. Here's why you can't possibly want to hand things back to Donald Trump.

I mean, there are poll numbers out there, when people are asked, do you think that Joe Biden's policies have made you better or worse off? By a 30-point margin, voters say worse off. But then when they're asked about Donald Trump's presidency, by a 12-point margin, people say they were better off.

So, there is a little bit of rose colored glasses moment going on here, voters thinking, well, maybe things were better before Biden was president. I suspect Joe Biden will be eager to remind those voters why he thinks that was not the case.

GOLODRYGA: We are seeing consumer sentiment finally start to turn around. Maybe that will be good news for Joe Biden, a year before the election.

Kristen Holmes, it's notable that Trump is returning to an unfulfilled 2016 campaign promise, that if he's elected he will repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He didn't do it before, here's what he posted now. He said Obamacare is too expensive, and otherwise not good health care. I will come up with a much better and less expensive alternative. People will be happy, not sad.

Now, keep that in mind as we show you polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds that Republican voters are far less interested than Democrats and hearing the candidates talk about the affordable care act. Only 32 percent of Republican voters rated as, quote, very important.

So, why do you think, of all issues, because he typically goes with his gut on some of these, and many times he's right, why have all the issues is he targeting this one?

HOLMES: Well, you see that 32 percent if you asked Republican lawmakers who want to talk about the future of the Affordable Care Act, that is much lower, because many of them still have PTSD from what happened back when Donald Trump was in office, when they tried to overturn Obamacare. It was the signature promise of Donald Trump's. And even with a full monopoly on power in Washington, they were unable to do so.

So, many Republicans don't want to touch this topic. Now, when it comes to Donald Trump, this is something that was brought to his attention when he had a meeting with a former governor of Kansas wanted to talk about Obamacare. Then he saw Wall Street Journal article in which Elizabeth Warren was pushing back on some of the aspects of the Affordable Care Act, saying that it was costing people more money because insurance companies were taking advantage of the law.

This came to his head, and that's what I'm told by senior advisers, as a bipartisan and potentially winning issue. He has become since fixated on it, on the health care aspect, on overturning it.

But I will remind you that when he was in the office, when he was in the White House, he made a promise that he would come up with a new health care plan that would completely overhaul the Affordable Care Act. He never did. He left office without coming up with that. Now he saying the exact same thing, but yet, we have no indication of what that would look like. And I will tell you, when you first started bringing this up, it surprised some of his own senior advisers who've been working with him on policy, and had never had one single conversation with him on Obamacare.

GOLODRYGA: He seems to be going with what he just heard the last minute before, and just putting it out in a message. Some things never change.

Kristen Soltis Anderson and Kristen Holmes, thank you.

And coming up right after the holidays, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate CNN's Republican presidential debate, live from Des Moines, just five days before the Iowa caucuses. That will be January 10th at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Well, thousands of migrants are joining a new caravan from southern Mexico headed to an already overwhelmed U.S. border. We'll take you live to Eagle Pass, Texas, next.



GOLODRYGA: In our national lead, thousands of people have joined a migrant caravan from southern Mexico heading toward the U.S. border. It comes ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Mexico City tomorrow, to try and alleviate the unprecedented migrant surge.

CNN's Rosa Flores is on the ground for us in Eagle Pass, Texas.


ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the migrant caravan forms in southern Mexico with thousands from Central and South America, the scene on the U.S. southern border in Eagle Pass, Texas, has changed. The areas where thousands of migrants were waiting outdoors to be transported for immigration processing last week were emptied out this week. The flow this morning appeared to be down to a trickle.

A senior Customs and Border Protection official telling CNN that while the scene in Eagle Pass has improved, the agency is not out of the woods yet. CBP is still grappling with elevated numbers of migrant encounters on the U.S. southern border. More than 11,000 migrants are waiting in shelters in northern Mexico, 3,800 in Tijuana, 3,200 in Reynosa, 4,000 in Matamoros. Many hoping to enter legally but some opting to cross illegally, say community leaders.

U.S. federal authorities report of the seven-day average of more than 9,600 migrant encounters in December. That number was 6,800 at the end of November.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Wednesday in Mexico City. The Biden administration is expected to put pressure on Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants.

To deal with the flow, CBP has temporarily suspended operations at several ports of entry in several states to reassign personnel to process migrants. This as CNN learns from a CBP official, that the surge is in part driven by pseudo-legitimate travel agencies abroad that promise trips to the U.S., but instead connect travelers to smugglers self of the border. That might explain this recent seen in Arizona.

I work for CNN.


Now, I'm wondering where you're from? What country are you from?


FLORES: Senegal? Senegal? Senegal? Senegal? Everybody from Senegal? Smugglers are dropping off 500 to 1,000 migrants in remote areas of

Arizona, the officials said, creating a logistical nightmare for Border Patrol agents who have to find ways to transport them for immigration processing. For the volunteers who distribute water to migrants in the desert, it's the children who get them every time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's heartbreaking when you see the little children.


FLORES (on camera): Now, back to those 11,000 migrants who are in northern Mexican cities, waiting to enter the United States, according to one shelter director, many of these migrants know that they don't qualify for asylum in the United States, but under U.S. law, they have the right to seek asylum. So, many of them are doing it anyway. Sometimes blinded by videos and voice messages that they've received from migrants just like them who have turned themselves into U.S. immigration authorities, and then were released into communities across the U.S.

And, Bianna, when you look at the backlog in U.S. immigration court, it's about 3 million cases deep. And the wait could be years -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Highlighting a system that is just overwhelmed.

Rosa Flores, thank you.

A jailed Russian opposition leader went missing for over 20 days. Well, now, he's been located, thousands of miles away. We'll tell you where and why. That's next.



GOLODRYGA: Returning to our world lead, a mystery now somewhat solved, after imprisoned Russian opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, went missing in recent court dates, and seemingly disappeared. It turns out he was alive, and has been moved to a prison in the Arctic.

Now, CNN's Nada Bashir reports, that's raising a whole new set of concerns.


NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER (voice-over): One of President Putin's most famous adversaries relieved, exhausted, but most importantly, alive.

KYRA YARMYAH, NAVALNY SPOKESWOMAN: We filed a 680 request in different Russian prisons trying to locate Alexey.

BASHIR: For weeks, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny's whereabouts were unknown. Now, his team has located him at a remote penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, after a journey Navalny says took almost three weeks.

They brought me here on Saturday night, messages posted on social media by his aides say. I didn't expect anyone to finally here, before mid-January. Navalny's team raised the alarm weeks ago, after he failed to show for recent court hearings. At the time, the Kremlin stated it had neither the capacity nor willingness to monitor prisoners' whereabouts.

YARMYAH: According to Russian law after the prisoner is being transferred to another colony, they have to notify his relatives. But we know very well there is no law that applies to Alexei, and they will never notify anyone about his whereabouts.

BASHIR: In a statement on Monday, the director of Navalny's Anti- Corruption Foundation said the colony in northwestern Siberia, known as the Polar Wolf colony, is infamous for its remote location and harsh conditions.

Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison in August, after he was found guilty of extremism related charges, which he and his legal representatives have consistently denied. This in addition to a previous 11-1/2-year sentence for fraud and other crimes.

Known for organizing anti-government street protests and using his blog and social media to expose alleged corruption in the Kremlin, Navalny has posed one of the most serious threats to Putin's legitimacy during his rule.

His disappearance coming to light just days after Putin announced he would run for reelection in March 2024.

VLADIMIR MILOV, NAVALNY ADVISER: It is no coincidence that Navalny disappeared exactly at the moment when the so-called sham presidential elections were announced. And Putin announced that he's going to be running again for, sorry, I lost count, which term already.

BASHIR: And more news of his whereabouts has brought some reassurance to supporters. There is deep-seated concern over the conditions the opposition figure now faces at Polar Wolf.


GOLODRYGA: Nada Bashir joins us now.

And, Nada, it is notable that this penal colony is much harsher than where he was previously held. How does that affect the U.S. view of the situation?

BASHIR: Well, Bianna, the U.S. government has been vocal, consistently vocal in calling for the immediate release of Alexey Navalny. We heard earlier this month from the U.S. State Department saying that Biden administration officials had made contact with those in the Russian government, reminding them they are responsible for the well-being of Alexey Navalny well in their detention. And that Russia would be held accountable by the international community for the conditions faced by Alexey Navalny. But, of course, the U.S. government in the Biden administration have

also been consistently vocal in its criticism of the Russian government for the intimidation, harassment, and repression of independent voices in Russia -- in fact, the State Department said earlier this, month said the continued follow cases of those formally detained in Russia. Of course, that is a prime point of concern. And focus for the Biden administration, given the continued detention of U.S. nationals in Russia, Paul Whelan, of course, in the Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich.

So, we can expect to see continued focus on this case by the Biden administration, certainly -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Important points to bring up, Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan there.

Nada Bashir in London, thank you.

Well, six months after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college applications, millions of high school students are debating whether to include race as part of their pitch. CNN spoke to some of those students and their answers may surprise you. That's next.



GOLODRYGA: In our national lead, it's college application season, a stressful time for high school seniors and their parents. But now, six months since affirmative action was repealed, things are even more uncertain for many Black students across the country.

CNN's Gabe Cohen spoke to some of them.


LYNIJAH RUSSELL, COLLEGE APPLICANT: Hi, Brown. My name is Lynijah and I am a Black girl in STEM.

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That's Lynijah Russell's application video for Brown University. She's among the millions of students applying to college, six months after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, navigating how and even whether to include race in the pitch for admission?


What was your reaction to the decision?

RUSSELL: At first, I was a little scared. I thought it was a bit unfair. It made me doubt myself a little bit, like, are my numbers good enough?

COHEN: You actually took some schools off your list?

RUSSELL: I felt like getting in some of those schools were almost impossible.

COHEN: But when she sat down to write her college essays, she decided it was more important than ever to discuss race as part of her life experience.

RUSSELL: I believe it maybe emphasize that was Black a bit more than I probably would have.

Expressing myself through my photos, my hair styles.

COHEN: Her main essay is about growing up in a rough part of Baltimore.

RUSSELL: That is important me is my identity, who I am as a person. And race is a big part of that.

COHEN: You think schools are still looking for that diversity?


TRACY RAMOS, COLLEGE ADVISER: Do not ignore such a crucial part of your identity.

COHEN: College advisers like Tracy Ramos are encouraging Black students not to shy away from race in their applications, especially in their essays.

RAMOS: It paints a holistic picture of who you are.

COHEN: You think without boxes to check, it's even more important to write about these issues?

RAMOS: I do. A lot of elite colleges are looking for ways to identify these students. The key piece of advice is make it easy for colleges to know all of who you are.

COHEN: Many schools have added questions to their applications, so students can discuss their life experience, and how they'd add to campus diversity.

SEAN MANLEY, COLLEGE APPLICANT: As a student athlete, who's president of the Black student union and vice president of the National Society of Black Engineers --

COHEN: Sean Manley's essays captured his unique experience as a Black student in rural Maryland.

MANLEY: I was scared at first that they wouldn't be able to see my race, and see all the challenges that come with it. I'm very proud of who I am. It's a very important part of why I'm here.

COHEN: Do you think that will put you in a better spot?

MANLEY: I don't know if writing it in my essay is good or bad yet because we're kind of like the experiment class. COHEN: The Supreme Court decision has added a new level of stress to

an already stressful college application process for students like Sean and Lynijah. Experts expect historically Black colleges will see higher enrollment and more applications. And some students are taking a very different approach.

You took race out of most of your essays?


COHEN: Harmony Moore re-wrote her essays about being a Black student at a mostly white Houston school.

Why did you feel that was necessary?

MOORE: I didn't want to have the admissions, wrong admissions officer read it and they all of a sudden like, don't let me into the school because of her come trying to like push my race on them. I think I stand out like on my own, with my extracurriculars and my honors that I've received. I don't just have the exact same story as hundreds of other Black students.


GABE (on camera): And I spoke with another student named Sydney, who told me she is looking at each college individually and only writing about her racial identity for the schools that she believes are more progressive, which, Bianna, again it speaks to the calculations that the students are making.

But the reality is, as one of the student said in the piece, in a lot of, ways they are the experiment class. There is no clear right answer at this point. So, we're going to see how all of this impacts acceptance rates in the next few months. Still, a lot of concerns, Bianna, that the Supreme Court decision reduced diversity on campuses.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, that stood to me, too, what Sean said, calling this the experiment class. Really fascinating reporting.

Gabe Cohen, thank you.

Well, coming up, ugly sweater from Aunt Betty? More coffee mugs from grandma?

COHEN: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: Well, time to make some returns. But this year, it may end up costing you. We'll tell you why. That's next.



GOLODRYGA: In our money lead, it's a big day for consumers. Time to return all of those gifts that you don't want, or are the wrong size. The British called it Boxing Day, and it's an official holiday. But as the old song goes, the times, well, they are a-changin'.

Let's bring in CNN consumer reporter Nathaniel Meyersohn.

Free returns are going away, why?

NATHANIEL MEYERSOHN, CNN CONSUMER REPORTER: Yes, the era of free returns is ending. You see about 81 percent of retailers now charging for a return. And we are seeing this happening because returns are expensive for retailers, they have to pay for the shipping fees, they have to re-stop the items, and that all impacts their bottom line.

So you look at some of the return fees for mail, some of these major retailers. J.Crew, $7.50. Macy's, $9.99. And even Amazon has added a return fee, $1 fee if you return to the UPS store instead of dropping it at a Whole Foods, if it's closer to you.

So this era is really ending, and we are seeing more shoppers buy online. And we are typically returning more that we buy online, than if we see it in person, and it looks better online than in person.

GOLODRYGA: As I told you earlier, can't go wrong with the gift cards, that's what I do.

I want to ask you about another matter today. The newest Apple watches can't be sold here in the U.S.

What's going on here?

MEYERSOHN: Yeah. So, the Apple watch has been increasingly important to the company, but we are seeing a patent dispute over some of the newest versions of the Apple Watch. So, sales have been halted, a couple of the most recent Apple Watch versions, the Series 9 and the Ultra 2. Apple is appealing this decision, but it's going to be really interesting to watch, because Apple is trying to gather more data on customers, health care information. But this patent infringement lawsuit could really impact the company.

GOLODRYGA: Yeah, and the Biden administration decided not to intervene on this as well.

Nathaniel Meyersohn, thank you so much.

And if you ever miss an upset of THE LEAD, you can listen to the show wherever you get your podcasts.

Meantime, our coverage continues now with Pamela Brown in "THE SITUATION ROOM".